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Thai PM hands security control to military

By the CNN Wire Staff
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'Red shirt' leaders evade arrest
  • Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says terrorism is "important problem"
  • Three anti-government protest leaders evade Thai security authorities
  • The men, surrounded in a Bangkok hotel, are lowered from a window and flee by truck
  • At least 23 people killed in deadly police-protester clashes over the weekend

Bangkok, Thailand (CNN) -- Thailand's prime minister handed security operations entirely to the country's military Friday after three anti-government protest leaders' bold escape from a hotel surrounded by security forces.

"The important problem now is the terrorism," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said, referring to what authorities say is a terrorist group mixing among protesters. He spoke in a televised broadcast after three days of silence amid the tumult in his country.

The prime minister also acknowledged that "police forces were trying to capture some of the Red Shirt leaders, but it was not successful." He admitted that many government efforts failed.

The chief of the Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situations will be Army Chief General Anupong Paochinda instead of Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaungsuban, he said.

Earlier, while Thai security authorities surrounded a Bangkok hotel, three men were lowered from a third-floor window and fled in a waiting truck -- even as security forces searched the hotel. Police said two officers were left with them to carry out negotiations, a development officials with the protesters confirmed.

As government forces surround the hotel, the deputy prime minister announced that "regular" demonstrators had been infiltrated by "terrorists" with clear intention to do harm. He called on the innocent demonstrators to separate themselves from the terrorists and not be used as human shields.

At least 23 people were killed in deadly police-protester clashes over the weekend, the Bangkok Emergency Medical Service said. More than 850 others were wounded in the clashes, the service said.

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An estimated 1,000 demonstrators had gathered outside the SC Park Hotel, but dispersed shortly after the leaders escaped.

The protesters, known as "Red Shirts," for their clothing, have been demanding for days that Abhisit dissolve parliament and call new elections. In addition, Red Shirts leader Weng Tojirakarn said the group wants the prime minister to leave the country.

The Red Shirts are supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a bloodless military coup in 2006.

On Monday, Thailand's election commission -- an independent government body that oversees races and can disqualify candidates -- recommended the dissolution of Abhisit's party. The commission accused the Democrat Party of accepting an $8 million campaign donation from a private company and for mishandling funds the commission allocated to it.

The commission's recommendation will now be considered by the country's attorney general's office. If it agrees, the country's Constitution Court will ultimately issue a ruling.

Video: Thailand cracks down on protesters

If the 64-year-old party is dissolved, its senior leaders -- including Abhisit -- will be banned from politics for five years. The process can take up to six months.

But if successful, it will be eerily reminiscent of events two years ago that brought the Democrats to power.

In 2008, the court dissolved the then-ruling People Power Party, citing electoral fraud.

The court's decision barred Thaksin's predecessor, Somchai Wongsawat, from holding public office for five years. Somchai and the anti-government protesters, the Red Shirts, share a commonality.

Somchai is Thaksin's brother-in-law, and his People Power Party was often accused of being a proxy presence for Thaksin.

Thaksin fled the country in 2008 while facing trial on corruption charges that he says were politically motivated. But he remains hugely popular.

Speaking at a forum at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland this week, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Pirmoya called Thaksin a "bloody terrorist" who has to return home to serve jail time before he is allowed to participate in politics again.

He blamed Thaksin for Thailand's unrest and criticized countries such as Russia, Germany and the United Arab Emirates, which have allowed the former prime minister in.

"Everyone is playing naive, closing their eyes and so on, simply because he was once an elected leader," Kasit said. "Hitler was elected, Mussolini was elected, even Stalin could say that he was elected also but what did they do to their very society?"

Weng, the anti-government leader, denied the foreign minister's claims that Thaksin was funding the current movement -- saying the money is coming from donations.

CNN's Arwa Damon and Kocha Olarn contributed to this report.